Activist Spirit: Dan Gilroy directs Denzel Washington as an idealistic lawyer in 'Roman J. Israel, Esq.'

Movies Features

Old-fashioned doesn't begin to describe the "backroom" lawyer Denzel Washington plays in Roman J. Israel, Esq. Opening in select theatres on Nov. 17, the Columbia Pictures release gives Washington a good shot at another Oscar nomination.

Director Dan Gilroy had no one else but Washington in mind when he wrote his screenplay. "If Denzel had not done this," he says by phone from Los Angeles, "I would have put the script away."

Gilroy pictured the Roman character as "somewhere about sixty, sixty-five, and a person of color. He had to have strength and he had to have heart. It took nine months to write on spec."

After reading Gilroy's script, Washington accepted the role over lunch, but was committed first to directing and starring in Fences, his adaptation of the August Wilson play.

Washington's physical transformation for Roman was remarkable. He gained weight, grew an unruly Afro, removed caps from his teeth, and endured a wardrobe straight out of the 1970s. His Roman is a brusque, uncompromising advocate whose hair-trigger anger makes him a liability in court.

"We talked about Roman a lot," Gilroy says, describing his work method with Washington. "We decided that he was somewhere on the Asperger's spectrum, highly functioning, but with a social awkwardness we attributed to the fact that he was more comfortable in a backroom writing briefs than dealing with people."

In the story, Roman works for William Henry Jackson, a popular social justice lawyer who suffers a fatal heart attack in the opening scenes. His survivors want to dissolve the firm, leaving Roman in a precarious position. When Roman tries to argue cases himself, he is fined for contempt of court for insisting on his rights before an angry, impatient judge.

Roman's lack of social skills isn't his only problem. For years he has lived in borderline poverty while assembling a quixotic class-action suit for plea bargain reform. He may have memorized the entire California legal code, but without a job he faces homelessness.

That's when George Pierce (played by Colin Farrell), a slick attorney for a high-powered firm, steps in. He offers Roman a menial job, then begins to rely on him more when Roman proves surprisingly capable.

"George Pierce is a sellout," Gilroy says. "He says so in a scene with Roman at the Staples Center. Colin and I and Denzel met quite often to talk about him. The concept we formed was that George has an ember inside him that Roman reignites."

Despite his faults, Roman also impresses Maya (Carmen Ejogo), an activist with a civil-rights group. According to Gilroy, she hasn't sold out, but is close to giving up. "I talked to a number of activists," Gilroy explains. "You get the sense that some ask themselves why don't other people care the way I do, why am I out here alone living in a cold-water flat with my bathtub in the kitchen while my friends from college are making six figures. It's a tough road."

The writer traced today's disillusioned activists back to the 1960s, when the civil-rights struggle was at the forefront of national consciousness. "My memory of the sixties was like millions of people protesting, committed to fighting for something," he says. "And over the decades I just watched everybody sort of drift away. I'm not judging them—priorities change, people get older. And there are still people fighting the good fight. But I was always interested in the few stragglers who stayed behind on the battlefield and never left. What happens if times change? I was very interested in the person who carries this burden, a belief or cause you have that nobody else seems to buy into. You're out there alone, and finally you sort of become disconnected from your own time."

Although social activism as a whole has suffered in recent years, Gilroy believes that his story has landed in a time when activism is coming back to life. "Idealism is still alive, activism is still alive, but it's more fragmented," he observes. "It's not a national movement. It's a very individual fight, a lonely fight. Statistically, proportionally, it's a tiny, tiny percentage of the general population. Most people just don't care. I'm not saying I care enough, and I'm not judging anybody. But the majority of people do not care about things enough."

In Gilroy's story, Roman undergoes a crisis of faith when he is exposed to George's world of wealth and privilege. For the first time in decades, Roman starts to question his beliefs.

"When Roman gets in George's BMW and looks around, I think on some level it disgusts him," Gilroy says. "Who would drop this kind of cash on a car when you could do so much more with the money? It's a battle I guess we all fight. We all want these shiny nice things that are emblems of success and fun to enjoy, but at what cost? It's like the ads for luxury yachts right next to articles about Third World poverty in the Sunday New York Times Magazine."

The beauty of Washington's performance is that Gilroy's themes emerge in a completely unforced manner. According to the director, that ease took months of preparation.

"When you work with Denzel, it's interesting," he says. "At first we're getting to know each other. You don't just dive into the script, because so much of what you're about to do with an actor is finding out: Can I trust you? Conversations about life, who you are, how you like to work.

"Then, about five weeks before shooting, our production designer built a recreation of Roman's apartment in our office in the San Fernando Valley. And so Denzel and I would meet alone, we would put on music. We would have the script. And we would just start talking about the script and the character. Denzel was starting to make choices about his look. We talked about individual scenes, what am I thinking in this scene."

By the time they were ready to shoot, Washington was thoroughly grounded in Roman. As Gilroy puts it, "I authored the script, but he created the character. Honestly, working with Denzel, he's at the top of his game. There are so many moments in the movie that he's doing things that are utterly unscripted, because he feels comfortable, he's thought things through."

Washington had the advantage of working with Gilroy's dialogue. Like Lou Bloom, Jake Gyllenhaal's character in Nightcrawler, Roman J. Israel has a distinctive voice. When Maya asks him to appear at a seminar, he replies, "Public speaking is something I'm usually encouraged to avoid." Change the order of the words, and the line loses its humor.

"Everybody speaks differently," Gilroy believes. "People have their own vernacular and their way of framing things. People who are aggressive or present themselves in a forward manner never qualify anything, never bring negatives into a sentence. People who are shy reveal themselves by overly qualifying their words, saying as Roman does, 'I'm precluded for pecuniary reasons' instead of 'I'm short of money.'"

Gilroy pictured Lou Bloom as a character who spoke out of corporate human-resources manuals, somewhere between platitudes and gobbledygook. Like Roman, Lou is disconnected from society, but in other ways the characters are polar opposites.

"I always imagined Jake's character as a coyote wandering around," Gilroy laughs. "The thing about coyotes, or animals in general, they can sense weakness or strength in everything around them. Lou Bloom knows people the way a lion knows a gazelle."

Both Roman and Lou have remarkable skills, but also crippling defects. "That's how I view everybody," Gilroy says. "Everybody's got a talent that makes them exceptional in some way, coupled with, with myself incredibly included, massive deficits and brokenness. But we each have our own gifts.

"Denzel and I discussed this, you could walk down the street and walk by Roman and never give the guy a second look. His clothes, he's schlubby, the glasses, the walk, this guy's a nothing."

As if to prove his point, Gilroy and cinematographer Robert Elswit often shot Washington's street scenes using a hidden camera. "It was like a throwback to seventies movies like The French Connection," he says. "We would put a camera in an alleyway and there's Denzel on the street. And because of the way he looked, very few people recognized him. It's a very real quality when you see an actor walking around on the street. I mean you can get great extras, you can rehearse the hell out of it, light it a certain way. But there's just something about the reality of five hundred people living their lives and an actor walking through it that to me, that's unbeatable."

Gilroy used some of the same Nightcrawler crew for Roman J. Israel, Esq., including his fraternal twin brother John as editor. (John also edited Star Wars: Rogue One, co-written by Dan’s older brother, Tony.) And they will likely work together on Gilroy's next project for Netflix. Gilroy describes the movie, also set in Los Angeles and featuring Jake Gyllenhaal and Rene Russo, as completely different from his previous two works, with a Robert Altman-like quality.

Gilroy will talk enthusiastically about working out compositions with Elswit or adding street sounds to pump up scenes the way Coppola did in The Godfather. But at first he shies away from discussing the underpinnings of Roman J. Israel, Esq.

Pressed, he admits, "This movie, if it's about anything, is about tolerance. It's about accepting individuals and accepting the fact that individuals have their own worth. Every case that appears before court is incredibly important. Warehousing two-and-a-half million people is a crime against humanity. We need plea-bargaining reform. Ninety-five percent of cases in the United States do not go to trial, they are pled out. And prosecutors have way too much power."

Gilroy's belief in the importance of the individual, coupled with Denzel Washington's complicated performance, turns Roman J. Israel, Esq. into a sort of mirror image of Nightcrawler.

"Nightcrawler was a cautionary tale," he says. "If we're not careful, the Lous of the world are going to win. Roman J. Israel, Esq. is connected to it in a different thematic way, which is a guy who believes in something bigger than himself, who is blessed and burdened by his activism."